Transfiguration Sunday – Feb. 14, 2021
The Rev. Debra Slade – St. Francis Church, Stamford, CT
As a child, I grew up on the flat, flat, flat prairies of southern Manitoba. It was a great place to ride your bike if you wanted to avoid inclines, and to cross country ski and ice skate in the winter. outside Having really only known flat lands, mountains were definitely unfamiliar territory. So, how does a prairie girl learn to love the mountains, you ask? Well, the way many people did in the 1960’s from watching the beloved film about mountains and love – The Sound of Music. The news recently of Christopher Plummer’s death at his home in Weston, Connecticut was another sad blow in a very sad year. His beloved performance as Captain Von Trapp alongside the amazing Julie Andrews, and all those children and nuns will, for me, be an important memory of my childhood. For this was a film that I must have watched as many times as it was on television, and then many more times when available by DVD. And who can forget the famous opening scene of Maria, the novice nun singing and twirling with majestic mountains all around her, and declaring that “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” We learn she escapes her loneliness by going to the mountains. When she falls in love with the Captain, and doesn’t know what to do – her Mother Superior sings to her and tells her to “climb every mountain until she finds her dream. “ Here, the mountain, being a metaphor for life’s challenges, can result in achieving one’s dreams, but only after climbing them. Yes, climbing mountains, getting to the top have long represented overcoming adversity, and when reaching the top, having a clarity of vision that is unsurpassed.
This Sunday’s gospel reading is about a mountain, a vision, and a turning point. When Jesus, and his three disciples, Peter, James and John go up a high mountain, Jesus is transfigured! His clothes become a dazzling white color, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, both Elijah and Moses have had their own important mountain top experiences, and their presence in this story symbolically connects Jesus with the law and the prophets described previously in scripture. The disciples hear God’s voice confirming Jesus as God’s beloved son. It is not hard to understand why the three disciples were terrified! Peter, who has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, comes up with the idea that they should just stay there, and built huts for this important threesome. But stay there they did not, and when the vision ended, Jesus returned to resembling his human self, and they all went down the mountain – with Jesus asking them to tell no one until he had risen from the dead. And if the transfiguration of Jesus wasn’t enough for them to contend with, now, the three disciples had to figure out what “risen from the dead” meant. For them, and for us in our liturgical calendar, this transfiguration moment, which is celebrated today, is a turning point. Bridged between Epiphany and Lent which begins this Wednesday, we go from a time of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the world following his baptism, to the part of his story when he heads toward Jerusalem, knowing well by him that it will lead towards his persecution, his arrest, and his painful death upon the cross. This upcoming forty days of Lent will be an important opportunity to retell and reflect on this important part of the story of Jesus, what its meanings are for us in our lives, during THIS time in the world, that is still in the midst of a pandemic, still in the midst of worldwide, fear, suffering and death.
Now, I wonder how many of you when contemplating the upcoming Ash Wednesday had the following reaction – “You’ve got to be kidding me – not more Lent – this whole darn year has been one long, never-ending Lent! I don’t need any more Lent. I am staying with you, Jesus, on top of that mountain!! Well, I admit that I had that same reaction, particularly when I remembered the incredibly lonely Easter service we had a year ago with a handful of us in this church, celebrating our first Alleluias to an empty room. It was so bizarre to me, that I even asked Mark and Dave (who is here today) to autograph my church bulletin (remember that Dave?). I still have it in my church bag. But, of course, that wasn’t an anomaly, as we know – that Easter Sunday was followed by a Pentecost, a July 4th, an All Saint’s Day, a Thanksgiving, a Christmas Eve and Day, an Epiphany and now a Transfiguration Sunday -- when we are not able to gather in this place together in person.
This is still a time we are not visiting each other in our homes, when we are not celebrating our important life events -- our graduations, our weddings, our funerals in the same way, when we are not touching, hugging, and holding each other – when we are forced to use technology to stay connected -- like now – right now. I look at the camera and imagine your faces – but you are not here in person for me to see you, and to hug you at the end of the service, to wipe away a tear if you are sad. We are always trying to find silver lining in this horror show pandemic – well, here’s one – it’s turned me, this frozen Canadian, into a hugger. I can’t wait to give all of you a hug now. Joseph, if you are watching, I know you are laughing.
So what to do about this Lent that is coming up -- this one that is starting this Wednesday with Ashes to Go done outside, and with ashes sprinkled on heads instead of imposed upon our foreheads – this one that will still go on for 40 days – that will still give us breaks on Sundays – but with Communion still being done without the people? I have been thinking a lot about this over the last few weeks, and one thing that I remembered was that last Ash Wednesday was observed in the same way we have always done it. It is hard to believe, because this year has been so long – but yes – last Ash Wednesday was a normal one. For it is during the middle of this year’s Lent that we will mark the one-year point since everything changed. In my hospital work – March 18th marks the day the first patient at Norwalk Hospital died of COVID-19. And such milestones are in important. I believe I am a different person from that person, that chaplain, one a year ago. I am a person who has seen more serious illness and death in a short period of time, than I have ever seen in my years as a hospital chaplain. I have seen more heroism shown through the bravery and hard work of people who work with the sick, and those who kept the rest of us safe, fed, and connected – the food industry workers, the delivery people, the police, the firemen and women, the teachers, the transportation worker – the list is long, and I am so very grateful. I have seen more disappointments, including my own, for those times of separation – the weddings that were cancelled or postponed – the funerals that could not take place – the people who are so far away from us, and can’t visit. I haven’t been in person with my youngest daughter Emma in over a year – our longest ever separation. And Peter and I have had COVID-19 ourselves, joining with the millions who did, and who were fortunate enough to survive. And, this virus has turned so many parts of our lives into making one ethical decision after another that we were simply unprepared for by the life that proceeded us. There is no question about it -- we all have been climbing that mountain, and climbing and climbing!
So maybe , now it’s time to sit down, before we get to the top, and have a big think about it all. I know I need to do it. Maybe this Lent couldn’t come at a better time! For Lent is about introspection, and about humility. It is about remembering the forty days that Jesus took in the desert to figure things out before he headed towards Good Friday. Where are you now, compared to where you were last Lent? What have you learned about yourself, and what have you learned about what is truly important to you? What will these lessons mean for who you are and how you want to spend the days, weeks, months and years ahead of you? What does this mean for your faith? And where is hope in all of this for you, for our country, for the world? Well, what a better time to getting ready for Lent than today – a day, St. Valentine’s Day -- associated with love. For we know that love plays a big part in the story of Jesus. And, we know that forgiveness and peace are in there too. And we know that Good Friday is always followed by Easter – the greatest story of hope in the world.
But it does seem a bit far away, doesn’t it – the Easter that we have all been waiting for? Well, the readings today are a reminder of that hope. Hope is found in the vision of the disciples that confirmed Jesus as the Christ, and God’s words that assures us that light shines out of darkness. And it is found, my friends, in other new places. And one of those places is just steps away from my office at Norwalk Hospital! Lately, whenever I get discouraged and whenever I get sad – I go to my new happy place. And that place is the vaccine clinic, whose jabs (as they say in England) mean for me and for many that things are really and truly getting better. Our own Chaplain Annie Hartigan plays her harp in the vaccine recovery waiting, and I push my cart of snacks for the staff, and we feel, from the smiles on the faces of the staff, and those getting the vaccine that there is a change in the air, something feels different, and that something is hope -- there is hope for all of us who have been waiting in darkness this year. So, let us go into this Lent with both hope and reflection. Let’s not lose this opportunity to make sense of our journey up the long, steep mountain, and use it to transform us, as Jesus was transformed. And let’s do it together, as much as we can be together – with humility, with forgiveness and with love. Amen